Samuel McIntire, who was born and died in poverty, created so many fine Federal style buildings in Salem, Mass., that an entire historic district is named after him.
He was born Jan. 16, 1757, to housewright Joseph McIntire and Sarah Ruck. He took up woodcarving as a trade, and he was so skilled his friend the Rev. William Bentley persuaded him to take up sculpture. He carved a bust of John Winthrop for Bentley, which is now in possession of the American Antiquarian Society.
Salem held great promise for young men during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Its booming maritime commerce — which included privateering during the American Revolution and the China trade afterward — offered plenty of opportunity. McIntire spent what little spare money he had on books about art and architecture, and he studied them assiduously.
Working out of a simple home on Summer Street, he began to design houses. His first major commission was the Peirce Nichols House, now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum. (Sarah Peirce Nichols took the walking cure from this house.)
Samuel McIntire caught the attention of Elias Haskett Derby, who commissioned him in 1780 to build a mansion costing $80,000 — an astonishing sum.
The Derby mansion was so costly no one could afford to buy it when he died. Before it was torn down, McIntire’s fine woodwork was taken from it and sold.
Capt. Samuel Cook later hired McIntire to build a house while he was on a voyage, but the trip was unsuccessful and he returned before the house was finished. He didn’t think he could afford to finish it. McIntire said his men needed work and they could finish it slowly, with Cook paying along the way. He persuaded Cook to buy some of the Derby woodwork, such as the gateposts in front of the Cook-Oliver House.
Similarly, four rooms of the Stephen Phillips House were taken from Elias Haskett Derby’s farm in Danvers by his heir, Capt. Nathaniel West. McIntire designed a new house for West in Salem incorporating those rooms. Stephen Phillips bought the house in 1911 and lived there with five generations of family furniture until 1955. It is now owned by Historic New England.
McIntire established a reputation for building elegant homes, and with his two brothers, son and nephew he built many of the 407 houses in Salem that now comprise the McIntire Historical District established in 1981. The district includes the grand old homes that line Chestnut Street — called one of the most beautiful streets in America — and the Federal Street Area Historic District, along with 249 structures nearby. It is considered the greatest concentration of 17th and 18th century domestic structures anywhere in America.
He also built homes in communities nearby, such as the John Cabot House in Beverly, Mass.
McIntire completed Hamilton Hall in 1807, a social gathering place for Salem’s leading Federalist families. Considered one of his finest works, it is still in use today.
He died intestate on Feb. 6, 1811.
This day Salem was deprived of one of the most ingenious men it had in it. Samuel McIntire, age 54, in Summer street. He was descended of a family of Carpenters who had no claims on public favor & was educated at a branch of that business. By attention he soon gained a superiority to all of his occupation & the present Court House, the North & South Meeting houses, & indeed all the improvements of Salem for nearly thirty years past have been done under his eye. In Sculpture he had no rival in New England & I possess some specimens which I should not scruple to compare with any I ever saw. To the best of my abilities I encouraged him in this branch. In Music he had a good taste & to’ not presuming to be an Original compositor, he was among our best Judges & most able performers. All the Instruments we use he could understand & was the best person to be employed in correcting any defects & was the best person to be employed in correcting any defects, or repairing them. He had a fine person, a majestic appearance, calm countenance, great self command & amiable temper. He was welcome but never intruded. He had complained of some obstruction in the chest, but when he died it was unexpectedly. The late increase of workmen in wood has been from the demand for exportation & this has added nothing to the character & reputation & this has added nothing to the character & reputation of the workmen so that upon the death of Mr. McIntire no man is left to be consulted upon a new plan of execution beyond his bare practice.